Assisi is a hill town in central Italy, but it is not in Tuscany – it is in the Province of Perugia in the Umbria region. A visit to the Medieval town of Assisiis essential; a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its represents “a series of masterpieces of man‘s creative spirit.” The town revolves around its most renowned citizen, St. Francis, Patron Saint of Italy: from the Basilica, which is dedicated to the Saint and contains his tomb, to the hermitage (Eremo delle Carceri), a few kilometers outside the town walls, where St. Francis used to retreat in prayer.
Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history. Born in Italy circa 1182, Saint Francis of Assisi was renowned for drinking and partying in his youth. After fighting in a battle between Assisi and Perugia, Francis was captured and imprisoned for ransom. He spent nearly a year in prison — awaiting his father’s payment — and, according to legend, began receiving visions from God.
After his release from prison, Francis heard the voice of Christ, who told him to repair the Christian Church and live a life of poverty. Consequently, he abandoned his life of luxury and became a devotee of the faith, his reputation spreading all over the Christian world.
If you listen to the news at all, or certainly if you are Catholic, you now know that a new pope has been elected. Immediately after accepting his election, the new pope is asked, “By what name should you be called?”. He then announces the regnal name he has chosen. On March 13 of this year a Jesuit priest named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became Pope Francis. The name was chosen in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. This is the first time that a pope has chosen this name.
Francis, whose full name was Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone was born around 1181 in Assisi, Umbria, Papal States (now Italy). Francis was born into a privileged and wealthy family. At the age of 19 he outfitted himself as a knight to join in the war against Assisi’s rival, Perugia. After a rather quick defeat, Francis spent nearly a year in prison while his father raised money to pay his ransom. Afterwards, Francis lost his taste for worldly life. On a pilgrimage to Rome he joined the poor in begging at St Peter’s Basilica. This and other experiences moved him to live a life of poverty, preaching the gospel on the streets of Assisi. He soon amassed a significant following and the Franciscan religious order was authorized by Pope Innocent III in 1210.
2 years after Francis’s death he was canonized as Catholic saint in 1228. Immediately afterwards work was begun on the Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, which is now a World Heritage Site. The church is enormous with both an upper basilica, a lower basilica and a crypt with the remains of St. Francis.
The town of Assisi is dominated by 2 medieval castles. The larger, called Rocca Maggiore was built in 1367 and meant to intimidate the people of the town, the smaller was built earlier and not all of it still stands.
We last visited Assisi in 2008. It is certainly well worth the effort to get there. While in Umbria you can also go to the equally interesting city of Perugia and make a detour to stop in and see the beautiful 14th century Cathedral in Orvieto. And of course, once you are in Umbria, Tuscany with it’s amazing hill towns and world class vineyards is only a short journey away. Italy never ceases to amaze the traveler.